A direct-marketing mailer sent to homes in Gloucester and Manchester-by-the-Sea has riled municipal officials, who say they are fielding calls from residents worried about the quality of their drinking water.
“We are currently evaluating the water for residents,” reads the headline on the mailer, which features black-and-red type on a bright-yellow background. “In order to determine how you feel about the water conditions in your home, please assist us by completing this short survey and then follow the instructions for the water sample to be tested.”
The mailer, which includes a sample bottle for water testing, includes the line “not affiliated with any local, state or federal agency,” but officials said that many of those who received it apparently thought it was.
“We’re trying to alert residents that misleading communications are being sent out,” Mayor Carolyn Kirk of Gloucester said. “It’s just a company trying to sell citizens their product.”
Kirk’s office has received calls from alarmed residents, as have the town offices in Manchester-by-the-Sea.
“For folks who quickly glance, it looks like it’s coming from our town,” said Gregory Federspiel, town administrator. “People are confused.”
Officials speculated the effort could be related to recent water issues. The president of Premier Water Systems of Walpole, the company that sent the mailer, said the timing was unfortunate, but it was a coincidence and there was no attempt to mislead.
In Manchester-by-the-Sea, samples taken last fall found “elevated levels of lead in drinking water in several customers’ faucets,” a violation of Environmental Protection Agency regulations, according to a notice from the town sent to residents in late June.
Department of Public Works director Bill Fitzgerald said the elevated readings were the result of small amounts of lead leaching from the customers’ plumbing and fixtures, and that the town water does not have lead in it.
The town took corrective action, said Fitzgerald, and notified residents that it is in the process of taking additional samples. But Premier’s mail campaign “makes life a little more difficult for us,” Federspiel said.
Fitzgerald said that the mailing has alarmed some residents.
“One of the reasons I’ve spent so much time on this is the calls I’ve received and the concern that they’ve expressed,” Fitzgerald said. “You can hear the tremor in their voices.”
In Gloucester, meanwhile, residents still recall problems at one of its water treatment plants in 2009 that resulted in a 20-day order to boil water before using.
“People are hyper-alert about water, so we’re trying to be proactive,” the mayor said.
Larry Durkin, environmental engineer for the city, said he contacted Gary Zafron, president of Premier Water Systems, and was told that the company was not aware of the community’s problems in 2009. Noting that Zafron said he has been in the water filtration business for more than 20 years, Durkin said, “I find that hard to believe.”
But Zafron said he does not think the mailers are misleading, and prior to talking with Durkin he knew nothing of the problems in either municipality. He said his company has been selling water filtration and purification systems since 1989, and using the same marketing mailer for 21 years — including several previous mass mailings to Gloucester residents. (The manufacturer is Kinetico Inc., whose name and logo is also on the mailer.)
“We sell the benefits of clean water, versus trying to scare people that their water’s going to kill them, or is not healthy, or whatever it might be,” said Zafron, who said the mailings probably went to surrounding communities as well.
While he understands the skepticism, Zafron said he prefers to not send marketing materials when a town is having water problems, because of consumer backlash.
Zafron said that the company has sent out direct-marketing mailings to about 20 percent of Gloucester residents, but will not send any more, following his discussion with Durkin. Zafron later said the mailer would be redesigned to make the company’s logo more prominent.
The mailer’s survey includes such questions as, “If you could, would you like to improve the water quality in your home?’’ A small sample bottle and return envelope are provided, and the company promises to analyze the water at no charge. “Time sensitive! Must be returned within 5 days,’’ the mailer says.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection heard from Gloucester and Manchester-by-the-Sea and then contacted Premier.
“The two things we told them is if they are sampling water and telling people ‘We’ll test your water for you,’ they need to use a state-certified lab,” said department spokesman Ed Coletta. “You can’t use a pool-testing kit to test for drinking water contamination.”
“There is also an approved testing form they need to give the home owners, and that’s what needs to be utilized by that company. They need to get all of the test results onto that form.”
Zafron said the company was using the testing form that was revised in fall 2012, and will update its forms.
Coletta said that the department is not jumping to any conclusions about the company, and that companies will sometimes come into an area offering such services and will comply with the rules.
“We just want to make sure they’re doing things in compliance with the regulations,” he said.